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Family Matters No. 29 - August 1991

What marriage means to young adults in the 1990s

Christine Millward


This article reviews findings from the Australian Institute of Family Studies' 1990 Becoming Adult Study which examined, among other things, the attitudes to marriage and expectations of marriage in a group of 23-year-old Victorians. The 138 young adults were first interviewed in 1982-83 as part of the Institute's Children in Families Study. The author concludes that most of the young people interviewed had positive views about marriage and expected to marry.

Marriage, as a key institution in Australia, is variously seen as threatened by changing community attitudes, or as undergoing significant changes but not under serious threat. Wolcott (1988) has observed that 'marriage as an institution exists in a context where the legal, social and religious climate allows greater freedom, opportunity and choice in how individuals should conduct their personal lives'.

Despite the growing acceptance of alternative relationships, couples are still marrying and forming new families. Trends such as later marriage, not marrying, childlessness, smaller families and even higher divorce rates do not necessarily represent 'an assault on the existence of families' (McDonald 1987).

The Institute's 1990 Becoming Adult study examined, among other things, the attitudes to marriage and expectations of marriage in a group of 23- year-old Victorians. The 138 young adults (77 women and 61 men) were first interviewed in 1982--83 as part of the Institute's Children in Families study. Back then at the age of 15- -16, just over half were in intact families (living with two biological parents). A further 30 per cent were living with a single parent and 17 per cent were in step-parent families.

In the 1990 study, analysis of the responses to questions about marriage considered the influence of family background, as well as differences between the sexes in their attitudes, and the nature of their existing relationships. Generalisations from this study to the wider population should be treated with caution for two reasons. First, the sample is very small and second, the group was originally specifically selected to over- represent children from step and single-parent families.

Almost one in four of these 23-year-olds had already been married. At the time of interview, 28 of the 138 were married and four had separated. The overwhelming majority of marrieds were young women (24 of the 28) and the average age at marriage for these women was 21. A further 21 per cent of respondents were 'living together with someone but not married', 31 per cent were 'in a close relationship with one person but not living together with that person' and 27 per cent were 'not in a close relationship' at the time of interview.

Those not married were asked, first, whether they expected to marry in the future and when. Then, those who thought they would not marry were asked why, as were those who were unsure about it. Finally, all 138 young adults were asked what marriage meant to them.

Expectations of Marriage

Of the 110 who were not married, 92 thought they would marry in the future. This constituted well over three quarters of both men and women. The same was true of young adults from different family backgrounds and those who were in different circumstances regarding close relationships. Overall, then, the great majority (87 per cent) either were married or expected to marry.

However, there appeared to be differences, though not statistically significant, between the age at which men and women expected to marry. Women seemed more likely than men (39 per cent compared with 22 per cent) to envisage marrying within the next two years when they were aged 24 to 25. Nearly 30 per cent of the group as a whole had this expectation. However, a further 46 per cent, who felt they would marry within three to seven years, when aged 26 to 30 years, included roughly equal proportions of men and women. Only 7 per cent of respondents felt they would marry later than in their early thirties and 18 per cent, more men than women, had no idea when it might happen.

More than half of the people in close (but not live-in) relationships felt that they would marry in the next two to three years. In addition, nearly 60 per cent of those who were not in a close relationship still expected to marry within the next three to seven years. Finally, about one in five of the young adults were living with, but not married to, a partner and 80 per cent of them felt they would one day marry. Of these, nearly three-quarters thought they would marry within the next seven years, but nearly 20 per cent had no idea when they might marry.

Uncertainties About Getting Married

Very few people were uncertain about whether they would marry (7 women and 2 men). The sorts of reasons given included not being ready for marriage and feeling that they might not meet the right person. For example, one woman felt 'it would have to be someone really special and I'm not sure whether I'll ever find a person who could put up with me and I could put up with'. Two people expressed apprehension because of bad experiences with their parents' marriages.

Also, very few said they would not marry (5 women and 4 men) either because a de facto relationship was fine ('de facto relationships have the same legal status as marriage, so marriage doesn't mean a hell of a lot, except for a surname') or because they were opposed to the institution of marriage ('I just see marriage as being really outdated and I don't like the institution that it stands for'). In addition, two people were in homosexual relationships and could not legally marry anyway.

What Marriage Means

When asked for their spontaneous reactions to the question 'What does marriage mean to you?' most young adults gave responses that were positive towards marriage, with women tending to make more comments than men. The various responses were able to be fairly readily classified, but no statistical comparisons between groups on these categories is appropriate. The Table shows the percentages of men's and women's responses in the resulting categories.

The meaning of marriage: types of response by sex
  Men Women
  % %
Lifetime commitment, permanence 64 57
Responsibility - children, house 24 29
Caring, sharing, support each other 13 28
Trust, honest, love 8 22
Outdated or irrrelevant institution 8 14
Stability, security 2 17
Generally important 8 11
Compatibility, happiness, bonding 7 9
Very wary, sceptical about it 10 6
Not sure, have not considered it 9 0
Note: Percentages total more than 100 because people could list as many responses as they liked.

The most frequent response, regardless of sex, was that marriage is a 'lifetime commitment' or means a 'permanent relationship'. Women more often than men mentioned caring, sharing, support, honesty, trust and love (50 per cent compared with 21 per cent). They also more often spoke of stability and security as aspects of marriage (17 per cent compared with 2 per cent). Although there were both women and men who said they were opposed to marriage as an institution, only men said they were unsure of its meaning. One young man said: 'It probably doesn't mean a lot to me because I haven't really given it a great deal of thought.'

Married and Unmarried Young Adults

Overall, the number of favourable perceptions of marriage was fairly similar for married and unmarried young adults. However, the nature of the responses differed somewhat. The married group (predominantly women) more often mentioned trust, honesty, love, compatibility or bonding than the unmarrieds (54 per cent compared with 16 per cent). For example, one married woman felt marriage meant having 'someone you can love and trust and care for and be cared for. (Someone) to share with'.

The unmarried group more often mentioned the marital responsibilities of housing, mortgages and children (30 per cent compared with 14 per cent) than did the married group. Most appeared to view these aspects of marriage favourably but four people were ambivalent or even negative about such marital responsibilities. For example, one young man said: 'A mortgage, commitments and kids --- not really keen on the idea.'

Unmarried people were generally positive about marriage, often especially with respect to having children. Some associated independence and adulthood with being married and having responsibilities towards others. One woman felt marriage involved 'having children. And having a home with a little picket fence' while a young man said: 'Settling down. Responsibility and maturity.'

Such positive views seemed influenced only very slightly by whether people had been in intact, step-parent or single- parent families at the age of 16. The only difference was that no-one from a step-family said that marriage meant stability or security. However, with only 23 people from step-families, the numbers are too small for any inferences to be made.

Negative Views of Marriage

Only a minority (13 per cent) of respondents did not expect to marry or were uncertain whether they would. All who said they would not marry commented that they were either opposed to marriage as an institution or wary and sceptical about its success. Similar views were held by about half of those who were uncertain about future marriage. For example, a young woman, not living with her boyfriend, said: 'It's a piece of paper --- that's a cynical point of view ... I suppose marriage is fine if that's what a person wants. It's something I would think about long and hard before I got married.'

Not surprisingly, those who said they were wary or sceptical about marriage tended not to express any positive views about it. However, six of the people who stated that they did not agree with marriage as an institution still mentioned marriage as involving love, sharing, trust or security. Perhaps these characteristics were notions of what they believed a good relationship should involve.

As already mentioned, only men said marriage didn't mean a lot or that they hadn't really thought about it (see Table). Nevertheless, these men all expected to marry in the future. One man said: '(I suppose I'll marry) about ten years down the track. Never really thought about it much yet. I suppose it should be a lasting thing, (but) I don't know.' Also, men expressed caution or scepticism slightly more often than women. One young man, who was living with a partner, felt: 'I would be very, very wary before I get married.' Another, who was not living with his girlfriend, said: 'I don't see the point in committing yourself to one person and making a decision early on in life that's going to affect you for the rest of your life.'

About two-thirds of those who did not agree with the institution of marriage were living with a partner. One of these young women felt that 'having a child with someone is more of a commitment than a certificate between you. It's a tradition through the church and I think it's terrible to bind yourself to that'. However, there were no strong indicators that those who came from single-parent or step- parent families were more opposed to marriage than those from intact families.


In the Becoming Adult Study, women made more comments about the meaning of marriage than did men and they focused a little more than men on the emotional aspects of marriage --- caring, support, trust, stability and so on. The women also had a slight tendency to envisage marrying earlier than the men.

Married respondents seemed to focus more on the emotional aspects of marriage than did the unmarrieds. In contrast, two-thirds of the small number opposed to marriage as an institution were living with a partner, but not married. It is noteworthy that young adults in a close relationship but not living with a partner were significantly more likely to say they would marry in the next few years than were those living with a partner.

Overall, the findings suggest that marriage remains the normal expectation among young Australian adults. In this study, most expected to marry and made positive comments about marriage, regardless of sex, nature of personal relationship and family background. Only 13 per cent said they would not, or might not, marry and marriage was taken for granted even by those who had not seriously considered what it means.


  • McDonald, P. (1987), 'Viewpoint of a traveller in time: family change in Western countries', Family Matters, No.19, Australian Institute of Family Studies, Melbourne.
  • Wolcott, I. (1988), 'For better for worse: marriages that last', Family Matters, No.20, Australian Institute of Family Studies, Melbourne.